Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on Reformation Sunday, October 28, 2012, at Resurrection. Psalm 46 and Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” are the sermon texts.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Martin Luther really understood that hymns are a God-given tool for teaching and remembering what the Bible teaches. We usually remember just snippets of what is said in sermons and read in the scripture readings, but we cherish for years the biblical truths that are contained in our beloved and rich hymns.
On this Reformation Sunday we will, of course, be singing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” What I want to do in this sermon time is look at the words and themes in this well-known hymn and see what rich biblical and Christ-centered promises are being proclaimed
Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress” in a time of depression and despair. He personally went through these times and had to seek the solace of scripture and of Christian friends. His countrymen and followers certainly needed reassurance when they were despairing that they could worship God in the way they wanted. Luther wrote this hymn in the late 1520’s. He was considered an outlaw for his teachings and could be arrested and put to death if he left the protected areas controlled by Protestant leaders. Already fighting and deaths had occurred between those in agreement with the Roman Catholic Church and those in agreement with Luther and the reformers. The world was looking bleak and any hope for agreement and reconciliation seemed impossible. It was in this time that Martin Luther penned the words to this hymn.
He based it on Psalm 46 and I Corinthians 15:25 and Ephesians 6:10-17. Here are verses from Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (vs. 1)…The Lord God Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (vs. 11).
Here is what I Corinthians 15:25 declares:
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”
Here are verses from Ephesians 6:
Put on the full armor of God so you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes (vs.11)…Take up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one (vs. 16).
Luther took his everyday troubles and the troubles he saw around him in his day and threw them up into the air. His troubles were not just troubles of the here and now. He believed the biblical witness that what was really going on is a battle between the forces of good and evil. He believes the biblical witness that God has a plan to win back creation from the power of sin, death and the devil. God’s plan is for Jesus, the Messiah, to come to earth, to die on the cross, to be resurrected and then to go to heaven with all power and to fight until he subdues all the forces of evil.
Let’s read together the 4 verses of “A Mighty Fortress”: A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious; he breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious. The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe! With craft and dreadful might he arms himself to fight. On earth he has no equal.
No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he! Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious.
Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot over power us. Let this world’s tyrant rage; in battle we’ll engage! His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail! One little word subdues him.
The last verse of this hymn is a supreme declaration of faith and trust in Jesus:
God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes, who fear it; for God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, good, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom is ours forever!
Why can the kingdom be ours forever, even if we seem to be losing in the eyes of the world? What Luther is doing is emphasizing something from the experience of the first century church and adding a wonderful explanation of what Jesus did for us on the cross. The first century church knew about martyrdom, how we can be called upon to give our very lives for the sake of the gospel. This is really calling us to believe that whether we live in this world or die, we are in God’s hands. In another writing, Luther said that our salvation can be explained by the term “the joyful exchange.” We sinners deserve to die because of our sinful nature and disobedience, but Jesus has exchanged our sin for his sinlessness and therefore we go to salvation, and the kingdom of God is ours forever.
In 1530, there was a gathering of Catholic and Protestant German princes in the city of Augsburg. The princes were summoned there by the Emperor who wanted to put a stop to all the discord and get everyone to agree to follow the Catholic faith. It would be dangerous, if not a death-call, to defy the emperor and go against the Roman Catholic Church. The protesting princes asked if they could read aloud what they believed, the Augsburg Confession that had been written by Luther and Philip Melanchthon. We’re told that these princes had been singing “A Mighty Fortress” as they walked into the great hall for the meeting. When the confession was rejected by the emperor and the pope’s representative, all of the Protestant princes said they would rather die than go against their faith, and they knelt before the emperor and offered their necks. For lots of reasons, mostly political, they were not arrested.
But, for the next 450 years Roman Catholics and Lutherans fought each other on many fronts. That’s why the year 1999 was so momentous. After 30 years of theological discussions between Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians, especially after Vatican II, a ceremony of reconciliation took place in Augsburg, Germany between official representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican. They agreed that the central point of contention of the Reformation, justification by faith through grace (that our salvation was achieved completely by Jesus Christ alone and not by anything we can add), is indeed the understanding and hallmark of what both Roman Catholics and Lutherans believe and teach about Jesus Christ and the way to salvation. Each side rescinded the centuries old anathemas, that said that folks on the other side deserved to go to hell for their false teachings. That’s why Reformation Sunday has a new and better name these days. This is really Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday.
Here is something wonderful to know
I invite us now to sing one of the great hymns of the whole church, “A Mighty Fortress.”